An interactive "supermap" that portrays the mutations and spread of the avian flu around the globe over time should help researchers and policy makers better understand the virus and anticipate further outbreaks, according to a new study involving University of Colorado at Boulder and Ohio State University researchers.
The research team used data from the known evolution and spread of the avian flu, known as H5N1, to create a roadmap of viral spread in time and space, said CU-Boulder ecology and evolutionary biology Assistant Professor Robert Guralnick, a study co-author. The team projected genetic and geographic information onto an interactive globe using Google Earth technology, allowing users to fly virtually around the planet and analyze movements and changes in the genomes, or genetic blueprints, of known avian flu sub-strains that have been sequenced since the virus was first detected in Guangdong, China, in 1996.
The researchers used the novel technology to chart the spread of H5N1 through Asia, Indonesia, the Middle East and Europe by various hosts, including its transport by specific orders of birds and mammals, said CU-Boulder graduate student Andrew Hill, a study co-author. They also used the supermap to track key genetic traits prevalent in some avian flu genomes that appear to confer the ability of H5N1 to more readily infect mammals, including humans, he said.
"This is a completely new method of integrating and sharing knowledge about disease spread, giving people a quick and easy way to make sense of the changes," said Hill, chief architect of the visualization portion of the collaborative research project. A paper by a team led by Daniel Janies of Ohio State University and involving Guralnick, Hill and American Museum of Natural History researchers Eric Waltari and Ward Wheeler is being published in the April issue of Systematic Biology.